Vwolf, diane
Vwolf, diane

Unsettling anti-Semitism at U.C. Davis can be fought with education

U.C. Davis is usually a quiet, bucolic campus; I jokingly refer to it as “moo-town” because it is the “aggie” (agricultural) campus within the U.C. system.

Diane L. Wolf

But we have had some disturbing events on campus as of late. As noted in your article “Swastikas hit Davis while Irvine protesters back hecklers” (March 4), a swastika was carved on the door of a Jewish student’s dorm room. Concurrently, the LGBT Resource Center was vandalized with insulting graffiti. And then, less than a week later, several more neon green swastikas were spray-painted on other campus buildings, including the building where Jewish Studies is housed. What should we make of these events and how should we react?

The carved swastika is a personal attack on a Jewish student and constitutes a hate crime.

It is unsettling for several reasons: the violence of taking a knife to cut into a door, the fact that no one heard or saw someone do it and the question of who has access to the dormitories for which only residents have pass keys.

The police are investigating, and Chancellor Linda Katehi and U.C. President Mark Yudof both responded swiftly, condemning these acts along with others such as the outright racism seen at U.C. San Diego.

A journalist for the U.C. Davis newspaper for faculty, staff and administrators asked me how our school’s Jewish population might be affected by these acts, as well as for advice on how Jews might cope with the emotional fallout from these events.

My response was very clear: First, we need to know more before we jump to conclusions. Second, the swastikas should not be seen in isolation from the defacement of the LGBT center on campus. Indeed, taken with the string of racist acts against African Americans at U.C. San Diego recently, we can see a general anti-minority stance.

Understandably, the Jewish community is most disturbed by the appearance of swastikas, but all of these acts are related as hatred of minorities. We need to remain vigilant and challenge not only anti-Semitism, but also racism and homophobia as they are all connected.

These acts might have come from U.C. Davis students, but it is also possible that they were done by disenfranchised youth, possibly skinheads. Although the carved swastika in particular has a chilling effect, there is no reason for Jewish students on campus to be fearful — this is not another Holocaust. Indeed, according to longitudinal data gathered by the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes are low and declining in the United States. These are isolated events, not a pattern.

At a rally last fall when the budget crisis was rearing its ugly head, a young Native American student took the microphone and connected the crisis at U.C. Davis to the state and federal governments, international finance and “the Rothschilds.” Thus, she made a direct link between our budgetary crisis and the Jews.

Many of my colleagues simply laughed at her ludicrous assertion but I was deeply disturbed. I e-mailed her and asked if we could meet and discuss her views.

It took months to negotiate, and when we finally met, she brought along some friends of hers, none of whom were U.C. Davis students. Their insistence on a conspiracy of Jewish world financial dominance was impossible to penetrate. An African American colleague joined us and tried to talk reason with them, as well, to no avail.

Although I found this experience very upsetting, there was an important outcome. Colleagues and friends in Chicana/o Studies and Native American Studies contacted me after the rally, stating how disturbed they were about this young woman’s speech and pronouncements. They found her assertions unacceptable and, for their own future events, were very careful about who took the microphone.

Thus, while this young woman’s attitudes and those of her friends were astonishing in their ignorance and arrogance, the solidarity shown by my colleagues of color was deeply meaningful. It demonstrated that those who are very aware of their own marginalization as minorities were sensitive to the attack on another minority, in this case, Jews.

Although there are significant class differences between the Chicano and Native American populations on the one hand, and American Jews, on the other, we are all minority groups, vulnerable to attack. The lesson in all this was important and serves as a model for the behavior I want to extend to others on campus from the Jewish Studies Department — because we are all in this together.

In fact, we are one of the rare Jewish Studies programs with a very positive connection to the Middle East studies program on our campus. Indeed, our respective programs often cooperate, and we have a very amicable working relationship providing yet another model of mutual respect and collaboration.

A strong Jewish Studies presence on campus is one crucial way to combat the ignorance of anti-Semitism. Since the majority of students who take Jewish Studies courses are not Jewish, we have the chance to expose young people to the richness of Judaism as well as Jewish culture and history.

We are a medium-sized program with a number of world-class scholars, but in the context of the disastrous budget that is destroying the U.C. system, we too are on board this educational Titanic.

Strong Jewish Studies programs constitute the best way to fight flare-ups of anti-Semitism. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. Knowledge is not only power; it is empowering. We seek to educate our students so that they not only develop an appreciation of all things Jewish, but also so that they gain the tools with which to fight back.

Diane L. Wolf
is a professor of sociology and the director of the Jewish Studies Program at U.C. Davis. She is also the author of the 2007 book “Beyond Anne Frank: Hidden Children and Postwar Families in Holland.”